You may have noticed that I’ve been preoccupied recently by U.S. President Donald Trump and the political upheaval south of the border. I don’t apologize for this — these are tumultuous, scary times.
Nevertheless, I was determined to switch gears this month. I set out to focus on a looming catastrophe in the Arabian Peninsula and Africa. But even this has become partly a Trump story. These days, it seems you can run, but you can’t hide.
In March, as Trump prepared to unveil his first budget, the United Nations warned that severe food shortages in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria pose the biggest humanitarian crisis the world has seen since 1945. More than 20 million people face starvation and famine, Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s chief of humanitarian programs, told the Security Council. “Without collective and co-ordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death,” he said. “Many more will suffer and die from disease. Children stunted and out of school. Livelihoods, futures and hope will be lost.”
The UN declares a famine when more than 30 percent of young children in an affected area are severely malnourished, and two or more hunger-related deaths per 10,000 people occur every day. Parts of South Sudan met that criteria in February; in the other countries, famine is imminent. The reasons for the current scarcity are complex and differ by region. But conflict is a common thread: in each situation, factional fighting has displaced millions, disrupted food production and hampered the provision of desperately needed aid. In short, this widespread food crisis has largely been caused by humans. Only human intervention can mitigate it. “To be precise,” O’Brien declared, “we need $4.4 billion by July.”
Less than a week after O’Brien spoke, the Trump administration released its plan for creating the leaner and dramatically meaner state promised in Trump’s election campaign. The proposed 2018 budget was a master class in hard-heartedness, gutting everything from environmental protection to public broadcasting to Meals on Wheels.
Some of the biggest proposed cuts — close to 30 percent — were aimed at the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which directs food aid to famine-stricken regions as part of a mandate to combat global poverty. The four countries the UN says are threatened by famine all receive USAID assistance.
Trump’s administration has also signalled its intention to slash support for the UN itself, perhaps by as much as 50 percent, a move that would hobble agencies such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme, both active in the famine-affected countries. The budget blueprint completely eliminates the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, a foreign-aid initiative that supports school meals and other projects.
After the UN issued its warning, nations elsewhere beefed up their humanitarian commitments. The Canadian government pledged $120 million in new aid to the famine-affected countries. The European Union earmarked an additional 82 million euros in help for South Sudan. You’d think the optics of slashing American aid while other countries were stepping up might have occasioned some soul-searching in Washington. But in Donald Trump’s scheme of things, it’s more important to boost military spending by $54 billion or to squander over $21 billion on a security wall than it is to feed starving Africans or to educate their children.
Tragically, it’s likely only a matter of time before all-too-familiar photos of skeletal kids and their haunted parents begin to show up in the media. They will be the face of this famine. But those images will also be the face of something else: Donald Trump calls it “America First.”